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Photographs by Evan Zimmerman and Jerry Dalia/Paper Mill Playhouse
* * * ½
The world premiere production of Stephen Weiner, Peter Mills, and Dusty
Kay and Bill Nuss’s musical comedy adaptation of the classic TV sit-com The Honeymooners offers a nostalgia-dipped trip down memory lane. It opened October 8 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ).
The series aired in drab B&W from 1956-1957 for 39 original episodes and has been in re-runs since. It starred Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph (soon to be a spry 94, who was present for the opening and garnered lots of love from fans). The musical, set against a spectacular rendering of the New York skyline, however, is drowned in deep color hues and sparkling rhinestones. It’s a shame, with today’s tech advances that the show couldn’t open, ala The Wizard of Oz, in B&W and segue into color.
The setting is a few weeks before Christmas, 1950: a sparse walk-up in Brooklyn with small “dining room” table barely large enough for two with checkered tablecloth, a drapeless window, sink with separate hot and cold water faucets, and
an icebox, with drip pan underneath. It’s the residence of redhead (who knew?) Alice Kramden and her husband Ralph, a driver for the Gotham Bus Company, who’s prone to daydreaming and dreaming up get-rich schemes. Today’s also Ralph’s long-sought promotion will make all his dreams come true.
Starring in these iconic roles are Tony winner Michael McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It) and seasoned Broadway star Leslie Kritzer. In the equally iconic roles of best friends and neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton are Michael Mastro and blonde bombshell belter Laura Bell Bundy, whose breakthrough role came in 1992 was as the teenage horror child actress in the Off Broadway hit Ruthless; and who earned a Tony nomination for her Elle Woods portrayal in the stage adaptation of Legally Blonde,
McGrath and Mastro bring such brilliance to their impersonations, you’ll believe Ralph and Ed jumped out – totally colorized – from your wall-mounted flat TV. And, yes, Ralph is still at his get off Chauncey Street schemes – abetted by faithful Ed. This time he and Norton concoct an awful jingle for a contest sponsored by an Italian cheese company and its ad agency – and, lo and behold, win – with a huge payout, their entry as execs in the cutthroat world of Mad Men, and lush living on Park Avenue.
Snippy realtor (Harris Milgrim) showing Alice and Ralph a penthouse states: “Our tenants are carefully screened and enjoy the highest level of affluence.” Ralph replies: “How about that, Alice? When you yell out the window to neighbors, you’ll have millionaires yelling back.”
Ralph never realized Alice is smarter and savvier than he is – but he does come to that conclusion finally in the book by TV veterans Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss – their credits include, respectively, Entourage and Roseanne; and Hawaii Five-0 and the NCIS franchise. They have been smart enough to include many golden moments from the beloved series – and would have been smarter to include more in the two-hour and 40 minute production. Certainly, some would be a welcome addition to Act One.
Alice, who more often than not outsmarted her King of the Castle, always stood by her man because she knew all that bellicose “To the moon” barking was just him being a “blowhard and wind-bag” opening his “biiig mouth.” She/Kritzer also has an Act Two showstopping moment that generated the kind of thunderous applause Bette Midler gets even when she wiggles her pinky in Hello, Dolly! Her feminist anthem, way ahead of its time, “A Woman’s Work”’ literally brought the house down.
Fans of the TV show may be stunned to learn that Trixie is an alum of burlesque theater. What?
A bit of research proved that this info was dropped in a lost episode not found/aired until the mid-80s because it was considered too risqué for the time. This background gives Bundy saucy moments in a skirt slit up to “here” or in skimpy costumes. She’s proven she can pretty well pull just about anything off, but all her pulling off here is a bit jarring – no fault of hers – she didn’t write the book, but it simply doesn’t seem like the Trixie we know and love. In her spicy number, “Keepin’ It Warm,” set in New York’s famed, but long-gone El Morocco, she comes over more like Adelaide giving back her mink in Guys and Dolls –,certainly a nice throwback to the period.
There’s a bit of drama in Act Two, when Kramden and Norton’s loyalty to each other is tested when they discover their quest for riches could cost their friendship. But most of the show is light and breezy. It’s a shame there aren’t more memorable musical numbers.
Weiner and Mills come through with a couple, like Norton’s tune with his sewer buddies, “Love Gone Down the Drain,” when it appears he and Trixie are heading for d-i-v-o-r-c-e over one – well, two misplaced kisses; and the quite inventive Act Two opener “To the Moon.” Whatever you do, get back from the bathroom quickly so you don’t miss this tune made up of famous zingers from the series: Ralph: “One of these days, Alice. One of these days, you’re gonna get yours! I don’t know when, Alice. I don’t know when, but I’ll give you a couple of what-fors and you’ll be taking a trip where you never come back … You’ll be going bang, zoom ! To the moon!” Alice replies: “Har-dee-har-har!”
When the actors stay very close to their fictional selves, the show soars. It also doesn’t hurt to have infamous scene stealer Lewis J. Stadlen, known for his Groucho impersonations, as the crusty head of the cheese company (no one does deadpan as well as him]; Lewis Cleale, as ad agency exec Bryce Bennett, who seems to be the adult version of How to Succeed …’s Bud Frump; or the impeccable pizzazz offered late in the show by Michael Walters after Trixie perform another winning jingle on TV. Tony winner John Rando (Urinetown) keeps the show moving. Beowulf Boritt, another Tony recipient, has not only designed that fore-mentioned New York skyline but also an ingenius set of boxes that revolve, track, and open to reveal various sites. Costume designer Jess Goldstein gets kudos for his accurate reproduction of Kramden’s famed, loud golf outfit, which is being seen for the first time in vivid colors. Music directing the 10-piece orchestra, which sounds like 20, is Remy Kurs.
Of course, The Honeymooners is a musical and one expects dance in addition to song. Choreography, from tap to elegant ballroom, of which there is too much – and soon begins to feel like filler, is by Tony and Emmy winner Joshua Bergasse.
The Legend of the Holy Drinker
Waiting for Guffman
After only 27% of Rotten Tomatoes’ critics — ratings are culled from their reviews — gave favorable nods to Suicide Squad, hardcore fans rose up in protest, thinking that (like Donald Trump) things were rigged against DC’s roster of heroes. After all, DC’s characters are the old school gang, classic figures like Superman, Batman and the Justice League of America.
Though it had a 135-million dollar opening weekend (the largest ever in August), the critical pack declared that it was, to quote one review, “terrible with a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing.” Salon’s writer called it “profoundly second-rate at every level of conception and execution.”
But what was so second rate, the film or its critics?
Between the two huge companies who own the characters that are the basis for these films, Disney-owned Marvel’s heroes (the ones in the comic books — remember?) has been favored by fans and critics alike. Its heroes, particularly Daredevil, Fantastic Four, the Hulk and even Spider-Man were written as outliers and misfits to American society. They are foreigners to humanity, created by atomic energy, a threat to the body politic. The X-Men are the ultimate outsiders, given that, as mutants, they’re next step in evolution, and depending on the writer, have been stand-ins for racial, religious, and sexual minorities. But hell, In Hollywood, this cast of characters has won the mega-audience lottery. Or so it has seemed.
While DC is the older company, Marvel entered the cinematic race with a more robust effort; but DC has enjoyed more success on television. That may partially explain why Marvel seems to do it better. Their earlier mistakes have been lost to the past. So is the problem with critical expectations or with the lack of a discriminating fan base?
For the most part, recent superhero pictures have been based on ensembles since the first X-Men on. Ensembles are great for building franchises but not necessarily for building character profiles. And some of these films have squandered opportunities to craft credible profiles by ladening on too many characters needed to set up future features.
Both Suicide Squad and Guardians of The Galaxy featured less well known characters which, of course, liberated the filmmakers from having the weight of the original stories and hugely familiar characters hanging over their heads. Though the hard core fan base may howl when these films diverge from the print/panel characterizations, it also gave the creators a chance to craft distinct variations — something much harder when that figure is Batman or Spider-Man. However this can backfire with a character like The Joker. In an effort to hype up the film, it seem like Jared Leto was the ultimate Clown Prince of Crime, when, to viewers, he came off like a desperate teen trying to shock his parents — thrown in as an add-on to an already huge cast.
These movies come closer to big-bruiser action films — where heroes shoots their way to victory — rather than to Hamlet. But they can’t just exist to be set pieces built on the presence of a super villain who offers an excuse to create elaborate fight scenes and destructive acts rather than effective plot development. Then it’s “time's up” and a way is found to end the movie.
Recent superhero films demand countless action scenes laden with ultra-violence because of a combination of forces: the needs of the studio’s bottom line; overseas sales to audiences uninterested in complicated characters or dialogue (with de-sexualizing alterations to appease Chinese censors), and appealing to kids (especially post - millennials with the attention span of a gnat) who have enough other media distractions.
Superhero films are a source for new strategies to sell toys and t-shirts so they don’t have to offer complex personalities and narratives. Who needs originator John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad when all it takes is flashy colors and sexy marketing to sell an action figure? No need for conventional development if core audiences don't require it. The whole genre has become more visually grandiose while becoming shabbier plot-wise.
From this vantage point, neither Suicide Squad nor Batman v Superman were as mediocre as critics decreed. Captain America and The Avengers really weren’t that much better but Marvel gets more props because its heroes’ universe is better integrated on screen. The raft of films on both sides of the aisle full bombast with chaotic story lines have too many characters and subplots.
Besides an occasional flip remark in Suicide Squad or Captain America: Civil War, what do we know about who these characters are other than through scant outlines? In both Deadpool and Antman, humor counter balances endless battles and acts of destruction. But that doesn’t necessarily make for real characterization. When Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool breaks the 4th wall between audience and scenario, critics and fans cheered but were the filmmakers bamboozling audiences to appear smart and clever rather than offer insight into this sociopathic killer? At least the raunchy sex scenes were a nod to Deadpool’s humanity — however perverse that it is.
These films have become more reductionist than ever. Let's rethink the assumption rather serve either fans’ expectations or a millennial’s need for speed. Maybe it’s time we see superhero films where characters fight evil but also worry about bills and affordable healthcare.The assumption is that there's no need to explain what superheroes do in a normal day or what challenges they face when not fending off super villains. When do they go to the bathroom or deal with flatulence?
Is counter programming possible in the age of 200 million dollar budgets? Can we do with less — less characters flying in and out everywhere — and more effort to show who these people are.
So I suggest a few points of rescue:
Why can’t a superhero film have a plot as engaging as Sicario, or offer a human story like Josh Trank’s Chronicle — a much better superhero film before he made 2015’s Fantastic Four.
When will a film give real life to the character and an emotionally rich backstory — not just apply expected superhero tropes?
Maybe it’s up to DC’s Suicide Squad sequel since it has so many rich personalities to really reveal what makes them all so crazy in the next edition — especially Amanda Waller — and show how to do it better.
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